This past Wednesday marked the 48th anniversary of the wreck, although May 13, 1972, fell on a Saturday.
At 5:35 a.m. that day, a head-on collision of a Greyhound bus and a tractor-trailer killed 14 people and injured 15 others, about 3 miles west of Bean Station proper on two-lane Highway 11-W. Interstate 81 did not yet exist between Knoxville and Bristol, so 11-W was the major east-west route. It was described at the time as the worst road accident ever, in number of deaths, for the region.
The bus was headed toward Kingsport, en route to Roanoke and ultimately New York City, with 27 passengers. The truck was headed toward Knoxville and hauling 37,651 pounds of linoleum and adhesives.
Even though I always think of the wreck when passing by the spot where it occurred, I wouldn’t have remembered its anniversary date. I was reminded of it when my friend Eric Swecker mentioned it in a Facebook post. Eric’s post told me something I’d never known. There’s a country song about the wreck — “11 W Bloody Highway,” by Jim McGinnis. It is what I consider country at its purest, the telling of a story put to music. The song can be found on Youtube.com in two versions. One is simply audio of the song with a static picture of the label from the 45 RPM recording. The other is a video montage of photos from the wreck with the song as its soundtrack.
The Saturday morning wreck was Sunday front page news in the Kingsport Times News — and across the nation.
From the Times News, May 14, 1972:
• Mrs. Wanda Campbell, 26, 117 Warrior Drive, Kingsport, was among the dead. So was her mother, Mrs. Mavis Fletcher, 55, of East Chicago, Indiana. Wanda, who had grown up in Lenoir, North Carolina, was wife of Harvey F. Campbell. They’d moved to Kingsport three months prior from his home town of Concord, Tennessee. They had no children. Mr. Campbell said his wife had flown a week before the wreck to visit her mother in Indiana, and his mother-in-law then decided to return with Wanda to Kingsport for a visit.
• Don Boswell, 20, 2008 Westwind Drive, Kingsport, was listed as critically injured, and Mrs. Ellen Delaney, 905 Maple St., Kingsport, suffered a broken leg and was listed in fair condition that Saturday night. A sophomore at the University of Tennessee, Don was coming home for the weekend. He suffered broken ribs and a wrist and apparently serious neck injuries, and was treated at St. Mary's Hospital in Knoxville. His father, J. Guy Boswell, was employed by Tennessee Eastman Co., and his mother was a teacher at Sullivan Elementary School. “I hope they do something about that highway,” the elder Mr. Boswell said. “With a four-lane road, I feel sure it wouldn't have happened.” Delaney, a registered nurse at Holston Valley Community Hospital, was transferred to Kingsport from Morristown - Hamblen Hospital. She suffered a broken leg and other injuries. She reportedly told nurses at the hospital she was asleep when the accident happened, and awoke on a stretcher.
• With Interstate 81 still under construction, U.S. 11-W was the major artery for north and southbound truck traffic and had one of the highest accident rates of any road in Tennessee. “Because of the heavy truck traffic on that highway,” commented Tennessee Highway Patrol Capt. Guy Nicholson, “It was just a matter of time until something like this happened.”
• Capt. Nicholson said the dead included the drivers of both vehicles and 12 of the 27 passengers on the bus. The 15 injured bus passengers, three of whom were treated and discharged, were taken to hospitals in Morristown, Knoxville and Kingsport.
• The wreck occurred almost in front of the Bean Station Baptist Church. Nicholson said the “northbound” bus hit the tractor-trailer almost headon in the “southbound” lane on the narrow, twisting highway. (Those directional descriptions are in quote marks because federal highway designations list 11-W as “eastbound” and “westbound.”)
• There were five children on the bus. Three were killed, one was injured, and one escaped unharmed.
• The 14 killed were pronounced dead on arrival at Morristown-Hamblen Hospital, located about 10 miles south of the accident scene. Eight others were admitted to the Morristown hospital, three were taken to St. Mary's hospital in Knoxville, and one was taken to Kingsport.
• Mrs. Thea Jackson, of Mobile, Alabama, was among survivors and called the wreck a “nightmare.” Enroute to Beckley, West Virginia, where her daughter was hospitalized with pneumonia, Jackson said she was asleep when the crash occurred and was awakened by a rap on the head. She said she heard a baby crying, the bus motor still running ... and then it was "panic.” She said that after she was jolted awake she heard someone saying, “Turn off the motor” and “My first thought was of the emergency door and I pulled up on the handle. I don't remember how I got out of the bus. It seems like I must have been in there for two hours, but I found myself outside the bus and I was standing in the rain."
• To Grainger County Rescue Squad member Jesse Atkins, it was "terrible, terrible ... I don't understand how anybody got out alive."
• "The people were torn all to pieces," said rescue crewman Allen Farmer of Morristown. "There were bodies all over the road."
• "It sounded like a case of dynamite going off," said Jesse Coffey, 27, a welder who was in bed when the collision occurred outside his Bean Station home. "I jerked the curtain back and saw the truck sliding down the highway. The bus was just sitting there, torn all to pieces." Coffey said he rushed to the bus and began pulling victims from the rubble. "I heard a baby crying. Some guy was hollering, ‘Help me! Help me!’ The motor of the bus was still running and we cut if off for fear the bus would catch fire. There was no way to tell how many people there were on the bus because they were torn up so bad."
• One of the children who survived was the 5-month-old daughter of Cecil and Mary Dunbar, of Forsythe, Georgia. Mary Dunbar was killed in the accident.
To be continued. Coming Sunday: the results of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the wreck.